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A Soundtrack for Hope: A Spotify Playlist for AWAITING THE KING

I’m not sure when it started, but in most of my books I like to note the “soundtrack” that accompanied their production–what I was listening to while writing in coffee shops and airports and my home office. Each one is a snapshot of a phase of my listening life, as well as a kind of interpretive horizon for each book.  No doubt my listening seeps into my writing.

So with the launch of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, the third volume of my Cultural Liturgies trilogy, I thought it would be fun to create a Spotify playlist to accompany the book.

This playlist isn’t just a soundtrack of the writing process–it’s a curated list that embodies key themes of the book.  It moves from lament to hope. It begins with songs that name the disorder and injustice of the earthly city and culminates in songs that reach toward the eschatological hope of the city of God. It includes songs that testify to the redeemed sociality we’re hoping for, and the inbreakings of that in the here and now.  And John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” is the motif that threads it altogether.


Thank God for Committees: Contribution to a Reformation Day Panel

The Meeter Center for Calvin Studies asked me to be part of a panel reflecting on the legacy of the Reformation. We were each given five minutes. Here are the notes for my brief contribution:

There are lots of features of the Protestant Reformation for which I’m grateful. I see it as an Augustinian renewal movement within the church catholic that led to the sanctification of ordinary life. The Reformers returned us to Scripture, renewed worship, and released the self for encounter with the risen Christ.
But today I want to focus on an underappreciated legacy: the Reformation’s theological investment in polity, particularly their emphasis on a plurality of leaders and the priesthood of all believers. In other words—and I can hardly believe I’m saying this—I’m grateful to the Reformers for giving us committees! The hard, frustrating work of committees is how we learn to the work of forging the commonweal.
  • This isn’t just about doing things “decently and in order.” It’s not about a dazzling org chart, and it’s not just some curmudgeonly concern with “following the rules.” The plurality of leadership is rooted in an anthropological and institutional realism: eschewing any perfectionism, we see the ongoing failings of even regenerate hearts and minds, especially when they are inflated by the concentration of power. So leadership is diffused without being diluted; governance is shared; authority is borne by many shoulders. “The prophets are subject to the prophets,” as Paul put it. 
  • Gifts beyond professionalism: offices of authority are entrusted to those with gifts, desire, and calling not just those credentialed with divinity degrees or theological credentials. And it is surely one of the virtues of the Reformed & Presbyterian traditions to have discerned that these leadership traits—gifts, desire, calling—are not limited to those with testicles. (Image of the Lord’s Supper being served by all women elders as a kind of signal that the curse is being rolled back.)
  • Though this all hinges on formative, substantive catechesis: as go elders, so go the church. 
  • Why I’m particularly grateful for this Reformation legacy today: because of it’s spillover to political life. It was these Calvinistic intuitions that bequeathed to us the institutions of checks & balances that are now features of liberal democracy. 
  • On one level, they reasserted the dignity of the individual: when Jesus knows the number of hairs on your head, you can’t be reduced to a cog in some collectivist machine. 
  • On the other hand, Reformed intuitions about polity and healthy institutional life bequeathed to us governmental structures enshrining shared government, internal corrections, and the sort of life-saving bureaucracy that gums of the gears of impatient, willful kings and dictators. (Hi there, Robert Mueller!!) The multi-pronged, self-correcting government envisioned by the US Constitution was, in many ways, dreamed up by Calvinists who didn’t trust themselves. Dr. King would later remind them they should have trusted themselves even less—and yet he appealed to their founding intuitions to make the point. In that sense you could say King was asking for an even more Calvinist Republic. 
  • But this too depends on a kind of catechesis: civics and the formation of civic virtue, as well as a healthy dose of self-suspicion—all in short supply today. The hard good work of Reformed & Presbyterian polity is how we learn to be good citizens, too. 

Translation and the Afterlife of Words: A few thoughts on Ruden’s new translation of the Confessions

Translations are a bit like music: you attach yourself to what you encountered in your youth. You reify what emerged when you were coming of age. You canonize what formed you.

So if you first encountered Proust through battered paperback versions of Scott Moncrieff, you’ll be disposed to resist Lydia Davis’ masterful new translations. “Accuracy” hardly matters: for you, Proust just speaks Scott Moncrieff.  A different translation sounds like someone else’s voice. These commitments and loyalties are not necessarily rational; they’re more like an existential allegiance–even a kind of friendship.

So, too, with translations of Augustine’s Confessions.  For some generations, it was Pine-Coffin. Others were passionately committed to Frank Sheed’s rendition.  For me, it was and always has been Chadwick’s translation for Oxford University Press–which is why, as you might expect, I found Boulding’s translation a tad overwrought, like she was trying too hard.

No surprise, then, that I greeted the arrival of Sarah Ruden’s new translation with skepticism.  And within the first page–in the first line!–my skepticism was confirmed and I recoiled in my Chadwick allegiance.  The occasion was her decision to translate dominus as “Master” rather than “Lord.”  So the cherished opening line of the Confessions greeted me as: “You are mighty, Master, and to be praised with a powerful voice” (Ruden). Contrast this with Chadwick’s opener: “You are are great, Lord, and highly to be praised.”

I quite literally closed up the Ruden translation in a kind of literary disgust.

Imagine my sense of chastisement, then, when no less than Peter Brown–the unsurpassed biographer of Augustine–praised Ruden’s translation. Even worse, Brown particularly lauded Ruden’s decision to render dominus as “Master.”  Here’s Brown making the point:

The measure of the success of Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most translations of the Confessions fail to do this. We are usually left with the feeling that one character in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-human Augustine, with whom it is easy to identify even when we most deplore him. But we meet him perched in front of an immense Baroque canvas called “God”—suitably grand, of course, suitably florid, but flat as the wall. 

How does Ruden remedy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She renames Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharpness has been blunted by pious usage. Augustine’s God was a dominus—a master. And a Roman dominus was a master of slaves. Unlike “Lord,” the Latin word dominus implied, in Augustine’s time, no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet. It conjured up life in the raw—life lived face to face in a Roman household, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage.

He continues: “To make God more of a person, by making Him a master, does not, at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Augustine to life.”  

When someone like Peter Brown is making this point, you step back from your allegiances and start to question yourself. 

But having done that, I’m digging in and sticking with my Chadwick, and disagreeing with Brown (and Ruden).  It comes down to the life of words and who “owns” Augustine.

First, the life of words: Every translation is an adventure in sailing from one language to another, and often from one time to another. (I have some of my own experience with such mis/adventures.)  And words in either language are not static: they have a life of their own. Indeed, they have an ongoing life that survives their speakers and authors such that words come to us encrusted with all kind of barnacles and freeriding associations by the time they disembark on the shore of our imagination.  This is certainly true of the three words at stake here: dominus, Lord, and Master. 

Brown thinks “Lord” carries a whiff of medieval feudalism and prefers “Master” because it reflects the antique world of Augustine’s use.  But this is to evaluate a translation of the Confessions as a classicist, and to imagine that readers of Augustine are coming to it as classicists.  For those who encounter the Confessions as a devotional classic–which is still the vast majority of its readers, I expect–their interest and investment is not merely historical or antiquarian.  More to the point, I doubt many of them appreciate the late-ancient connotations of dominus, nor do they think of feudal fiefdoms when they hear the word “Lord.” 

Conversely, to praise the rendition “Master” for its classical accuracy and literary verve seems to quite willfully ignore all the connotations that have attached themselves to the word “Master.” Indeed, perhaps I found it particularly jarring and offensive to read that opening line of Ruden’s translation because I had just finished Colson Whitehead’s disturbing but essential novel, The Underground Railroad, which paints a world full of “Masters” that were one more reason to believe God couldn’t possibly exist.

This brings me to my second point. In some ways, this is a question of who “owns” Augustine–not in the sense of who can claim him, or invoke him, and claim to speak for him.  I mean something different: which afterlife of words is most germane to the project that Augustine himself is engaged in?  Which history of connotation overlaps with Augustine’s endeavor?

When we consider these questions, I think “Lord” is the right choice precisely because of the afterlife of this word in Christian piety.  When the vast majority of Christians hear or say the word “Lord,” they are not academic historians for whom medieval feudal orders are rumbling around in their heads.  They are people who are part of a larger people that has been praying to a Father for millenia.  “Lord,” for them, is not “grand;” it is familiar.

Indeed, this is what’s so surprising about Ruden’s decision in that opening line. By rendering it “You are mighty, Master, and to be praised with a powerful voice,” she virtually cuts off the echo of allusion to Psalm 47:2 that Chawick recognizes. Ruden’s rendition is a decision that hides this as the language of prayer–which is surely an odd thing to do for a work that is, in its entirety, framed as a prayer. The language of Chadwick (and others), invoking “Lord,” pays homage to language prayed for centuries before him and, more importantly, prayed for centuries after him.  It is a translation decision that recognizes the ongoing effect of the King James Bible in transforming the connotation of “Lord” for English-speakers ever since (a reality that is still true even in our so-called “secular” age).  And its find its home among readers who are co-pilgrims with Augustine, who approach their dominus as co-heirs with the Son.

On “orthodox Christianity”: some observations, and a couple of questions

What do people mean when they wring their hands about the fate of “orthodox Christianity” (small-o) today, or when they vent about the treatment of “orthodox Christians” in an increasingly secularized society?

A few observations and a couple of questions:

Historically, the measure of “orthodox” Christianity has been conciliar; that is, orthodoxy was rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the church (Nicea, Chalcedon) which were understood to have distilled the grammar of “right belief” (ortho, doxa) in the Scriptures.  As such, orthodoxy centers around the nature of God (Triune), the Incarnation, the means of our salvation, the church, and the life to come.  The markers of orthodoxy are tied to the affirmations of, say, the Nicene Creed: the creatorhood of God; the divine/human nature of the Incarnate Son; the virgin birth; the historicity of Jesus’ life and death; the affirmation of his bodily resurrection and ascension; the hope of the second coming; the triune affirmation of Father, Son, and Spirit; the affirmation of “one holy catholic and apostolic church”; one baptism; and the hope of our own bodily resurrection.

Interestingly, and perhaps a little ironically, even low church, anti-creedal Protestants end up measuring orthodoxy by these same measures.  Even more interestingly, early 20th century “fundamentalism” and the conservative renewal in historic streams like Presbyterianism, also revolved around these orthodox markers. The famous Fundamentals of 1910-1915 focused on these historic markers (with added Protestant polemics about Scripture and Roman Catholicism). And Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism was pegged to these same markers: Doctrine, God and Man, the Bible, Christ, Salvation, and the Church. (You won’t find the words “sex” or “marriage” in Christianity and Liberalism.)

Contrast this with most invocations of “orthodox Christianity” today. In some contexts, the use of the word “orthodox” seems to have nothing to do with these historic markers of Christian faith.  Indeed, in many cases “orthodox Christianity” means only one thing: a particular view of sexuality and marriage. Indeed, in some books of late, the adjective “orthodox” is only invoked when talking about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  In fact, in some of those books the historic markers of orthodox Christianity as summarized in the creeds make no appearance and almost seem irrelevant to the analysis.  So when people are said to suffer for their “orthodox” beliefs, or when we are told that “orthodox” Christians will be hounded from public life and persecuted in their professions, a closer reading shows that it is not their beliefs in the Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection that occasion these problems, but rather their beliefs about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  There don’t seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists, and I’ve yet to hear of Silicon Valley CEOs being fired because they affirm the Incarnation of the Son or the resurrection of the dead.

I note this only to observe that this deployment of the term “orthodox” is recent, innovative, and narrow.  Ironically, it reflects a trait of modernity that those who use it would abhor: a tendency to reduce Christianity to a morality (see: Kant).  One could forgive Martian anthropologists who, parachuting into contemporary debates, concluded that “orthodox Christianity” just is a sexual ethic.

Now, no one for a second can deny that such views of sexual morality and marriage have been the historic teaching of the church. The weight of Scripture, tradition, and perhaps even “natural law” have sustained these views and beliefs for millennia. And one could argue that the silence on such matters in, say, Machen or The Fundamentals only reflects what was taken for granted, not what was unimportant.  Certainly.  And just because they are not matters of creedal definition doesn’t mean they are matters of indifference. The creeds don’t say anything about Christian nonviolence, for example, but that hardly means Christians are therefore free to adopt any posture or position they want if they follow the Prince of Peace.

But it is surely also worth pointing out that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate such standards. If the adjective “orthodox” is untethered from such ecumenical standards, it quickly becomes a cheap epithet we idiosyncratically attach to views and positions in order to write off those we disagree with as “heretics” and unbelievers.  If “orthodox” becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to “us” in order to exclude “them.”  And then you can start folding all kinds of things into “orthodoxy” like mode of baptism or pre-tribulation rapture or opposition to the ordination of women–which then entails writing off swaths of Christians who affirm conciliar orthodoxy.

So perhaps we should be more careful with how we use the adjective orthodox.  It can’t be a word we flippantly use to describe what is important to us.  The word is reserved to define and delineate those affirmations that are at the very heart of Christian faith–and God knows they are scandalous enough in a secular age.

Perhaps we need to introduce another adjective–“traditional”–to describe these historic views and positions on matters of morality.  Why?  Because otherwise these other markers will end up trumping the conciliar marks of the Gospel.  That is, the things we append as “orthodox” start to overwhelm and supersede what the church has defined as orthodox.

Here’s where my questions arise:

1. Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?  So that someone can affirm the core, scandalous, supernatural tenets of the Gospel, and affirm the radicality of grace, and yet fall outside the parameters of your small-o “orthodox Christianity?”

2. Those who stretch the markers of orthodoxy seem oddly selective. (Were condemnations of usury “orthodox?” They were certainly historic and traditional.)  Let’s look at a concrete example: the historic creeds affirm “one baptism.”  Consider, then, this scenario: You are a conservative Anglican who has raised your children in the faith since they were baptized as babies. Your daughter falls in love with a nice Southern Baptist boy. They are engaged to be married, and want to make their home at the local Baptist church and be married there. For your daughter to become a member, she will have to re-baptized. Aren’t these Baptists–who share your sexual morality–rejecting the (creedal) orthodox marker of “one baptism?”  Who’s “orthodox” now?

Making this distinction doesn’t settle anything. But it does change how we have the conversations. And it’s worth remembering that people are watching and listening in. While we debate matters of importance, let’s hope that those who overhear us still hear the scandalous, marvelous, miraculous affirmations of creedal orthodoxy ringing loud and clear: that “He descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.” And he forgives us.

Mortality and My Library

It is the first day of summer, at least according to my own personal academic calendar. The college’s commencement was this past Saturday. My official duties have been discharged for the year. Too many writing obligations loom for the summer; so, of course, I’m procrastinating. The piles and piles of books on the floor beside our bed somehow became stacks in our youngest son’s bedroom. But he has now returned from college. So those piles were dumped in my office while I was out of town, barring the way to my desk. This is a welcome distraction.  I “have” to look for shelf space for all these books in order to get down to work. 

The piles have a kind of archaeological quality: they are like the strata of my attention and fancies over the past year, the fits and starts of my curiosity. All the dust on a volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War history indicate that it has been the bedrock of the stack. Tiny volumes like Patti Smith’s Auguries of Innocence got lost in the layers of larger tomes. It now sits on the stairs to be returned to my bedside, along with A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. After all, these are the sorts of books that summers are for. 
Some of these volumes look at me with stern judgment, signals of failure: my bookmark indicates I only made it halfway through Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, though the dog-ears and pencil notations indicate some vested interest. Issue of Paris Review and n+1 are half-read, displaced by the next issue. 
i recall fondly my second readings of George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Adam Haslett’s collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, as I prepped for their novels, which were both excellent.  
The nonfiction layers are curious to me now: Catching Fire, an evolutionary history of cooking sits not far from Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy—which brings to mind a delightful visit to Powell’s in Portland. Indeed, handling each book comes with a whiff of its provenance—in Pasadena and Asheville, a gift from a friend, a book review assignment. 
And as I try to find room for all of these on shelves already burgeoning and lined two rows deep, I’m returning books alongside others unread. Despite all the Julian Barnes I read this year, there are still books on the shelf I’ve not made it to yet. There’s volume 3 of Foote’s civil war Narrative glaring at me unread. I put Colson Whitehead on the shelf and am reminded that Richard Wright is still waiting for me. As are volumes of Updike and Edith Wharton. I find a place for Hitchens’ Arguably only to be reminded that I have all these treasures from Alfred Kazin waiting to be read. 
A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right? 
A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?

At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I.   Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.  

2016: The Year in Reading

No “bests.” No rankings. No claims to objectivity or trendsetting or reports from secret avant-garde gardens of literature.  Just some impressions looking back over a year in reading. (You can see a glimpse of some of my reading at GoodReads.)

Novels that haunt me: 2016 was a pretty incredible year for fiction.  I won’t likely finish Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad before the year is out (I just started it), so won’t include it here–though so far it is remarkable.  The two novels that have most impressed me–and impressed themselves upon me–are Don DeLillo’s Zero K and Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone.

Zero K is poised for the moment–a character study of trust amidst failing states and outsized hopes in technology, taking seriously an enduring religious impulse that characterizes our secular age.  It’s conceptual scope is ambitious while it’s plot and dramatis personae are focused and minimal.

Imagine Me Gone is a zoomed-in family drama that dives into the ripple effects of mental health, all constructed around a musical motif that generates metaphors and provides a cadence to the story.  Having been a fan of Haslett’s short stories, I wasn’t sure his gifts would translate into a novel.  Imagine Me Gone blew through that skepticism.  The energy and insight of Haslett’s prose more than make the jump to the novel form.  Here’s just a taste of a passage I noted:

I took my first pill as soon as I filled the script at the CVS in Copley, a few blocks from Dr. Gregory’s office. By the time I’d reached Newton Centre on the Green Line, I couldn’t stop smiling. The kind of big, solar smile that suffuses your whole torso, as if your organs are grinning. Soon I began to laugh, at nothing at all, pure laughter, which brought tears to my eyes, no doubt making me appear completely insane to the other passengers. But happier I have rarely been. For that hour and the three or four that followed, I was lifted down off a hook in the back of my skull that I hadn’t even know I’d been hanging from. Here was the world unfettered by dread. 

Book I couldn’t finish: Anthony Lane Fox’s biography of Augustine was positively doldrumesque. Though I took the book on assignment, after multiple attempts, I finally had to abandon ship. Life’s too short to read horrible biographies–especially when Peter Brown’s bio is right here on the shelf next to it. No one has yet improved on Brown’s masterpiece.

Poetry I can’t put down: I should note Ocean Vuong’s new collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is melancholy and discomforting and yet charged with gratitude and hope.  But there is one poem that has been an absolute game-changer, a poem I bumped into by accident almost but has spun tendrils around my heart.

Like some of the most important books in my life, I picked up this book on a discount table (I’m a long-time believer in “bibliographical providence“).  Specifically, I ran into Ted Hughes Selected Translations at Vroman’s in Pasadena, one of my favorite shops and an annual haunt.  A fan of Hughes’ guttural, earthy, Yorkshire poetry, I somehow had missed this part of his corpus so added it to my stack.  Only several months later did I wade into the collection which ranges from ancient to contemporary poets.  It was a poem by the Hungarian poet, Ferenc Juhász that sucked me in.  It is almost sacrilege to try to describe “The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets” in prose.  Try imagine Pan’s Labyrinth as poetry, a 13-page compressed epic in which a mother is calling to a distant son who has fled.  The poem has a cyclical cadence about it, a call-and-response that feels like a litany, unearthing death and debts and all the things that make us sons and daughters. I have re-read it countless times in 2016 and don’t expect to stop anytime soon.

A Life: I read some marvelous biographies and memoir this year (Camus; Kissinger; Bruce Springteen’s Born to Run; Accidental Life, Terry McDonell’s insightful romp through magazines and editing; and more). But it is the heartbreak of Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday that has lodged itself as a thorn in my soul.  I’m still not really in a place to write about it–the beauty and honesty of Zweig’s prose and his paean to Vienna amidst the horror and deceit of Hitler’s rise.  The displacement; the desecration; the decimation of a culture and a people.  The quotidian evil of war. The erosion of rights. The striving for a cosmopolitan community despite the clamping down of borders and the stomp of nationalist jackboots all around.  Zweig makes you face things you hope he’s wrong about: “If there is one new art that we have had to learn, those of us who have been hunted down and forced into exile at a time hostile to all art and all collections, then it is the art of saying goodbye to everything that was once our pride and joy.”

Sonic Habits: Thoughts on an Advent Hymn

When it comes to matters musical, I am a rank amateur–a lover without training or expertise; a listener who knows what he likes; a hearty singer without much skill. I’m grateful for a profession in which I can constantly create an acoustical ambience of music to wallpaper my workday.

However, as a philosopher with interest in liturgy, I’m also somewhat attuned to what my friend Jeremy Begbie calls the “sonic environment” of worship.  Beyond the theological and imagination-shaping significance of lyrics, Begbie has taught me to be attuned to musical form as its own kind of lived theology (a while back this spawned a little reflection on Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift).

So today I’ve been pondering a classic advent hymn, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” that we sang at Sherman Street CRC this morning.  Rooted in the imagery of Isaiah 11 (the OT lectionary reading for this second Sunday of advent), with a bit of admittedly romantic flourish and speculation, it was the tune that grabbed me today.  Our hymnal sets this to a 1599 German tune, Alte Catholische Kirchengesäng (with harmonization by Michael Praetorius).  You can listen to a rendition of it; or here’s a snapshot of the tune (from a different hymnal source):

What struck me is how I–and to some extent, our congregation, I think–kept getting hung up on those third half notes (in the first stanza on “from,” “of,” “when,” etc.).  It’s like our sonic habits are used to a certain cadence and tempo that keep things moving.  At some unconscious level, we expect the next note to come more quickly.  We’re feeling stretched and a bit impatient by those two half notes already and when the third arrives we’re sonically impatient. Our inner tempo, trained by the cadences of a frenetic pace that always gets its way, perturbedly tells our tongues: “C’mon already–let’s get this show on the road! I haven’t got all day.”  We want a quarter note but the hymn hangs us up on that third half note over and over again.  We’re asked to sing another half note in a quarter note world.

Which is precisely why the tune of the hymn is its own kind of Advent discipline.  The notes are teaching us to wait, to experience the impatience of waiting (again!) for the Judge who is coming–who does “not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy; with justice he will give decision for the poor of the earth” (Is. 11:3-4).

How long, O Lord?

An American Lent

“What are you giving up for Lent?”

This question tells us a lot about American Christianity. While the question alludes to historic Christian practices of fasting and self-denial associated with the penitential season of Lent, the syntax of the question also points out a crucial shift: even our self-denial is an act of self-expression. Our submission to discipline is converted to act of will power.

The sociologist Stephen Warner talks about the “de facto congregationalism” that characterizes American Christianity such that even episcopalian and liturgical traditions become governed by dynamics of autonomy and independence. Perhaps we could equally talk about a “de facto Pelagianism” characteristic of American Christianity such that even those practices of self-denial become mediums of expression and choice. (In my new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, I describe this as an “expressivism” that has captured our understanding of worship and discipleship, in contrast to a more historic appreciation for the importance and priority of formation.)

In a more robustly communal practice of the faith, my self-denial is not up to me. The practices of fasting and feasting are not a matter of choice: they are part of the spiritual architecture of the church. It’s not so much that I choose to abstain from meat; meat is not going to be served. There are communal commitments embedded in an environment that takes the emphasis off of my choice and will power and instead throws me into the formative power of the practice.  My participation in the formative disciplines of Lent isn’t another chance for me to show something to God (or others).  It is an invitation to have my hungers retrained.

Liturgical Lessons from Ryan Adams’ 1989

Taylor Swift’s 1989 is often the soundtrack for my morning run. Its pop energy is just what my middle-aged body needs to keep pace. And “Shake It Off” queues up just as I’m starting to flag and I’m energized to shake off the doldrums, and all the haters.

This morning I bumped Ryan Adams’ cover of 1989 into the run rotation.  It was a revelation.

First lesson: his is not a soundtrack for vigorous exercise. More like the score for a dark, lonely Friday night corkscrewing yourself into a bottle of bourbon.

But the second lesson is more important: Adams’ version taught me something about worship.

When you listen to Adams’ cover of Swift’s album, you finally realize how incredibly sad it is–that buried down beneath the perky melodies and auto-tuned precision of a pristine sound is a lyrical world of heartbreak, disappointment, and despair.

Not until you hear Adams’ mournful rendition, in the gravelly timbre of his voice, does the truth of 1989 disclose itself.  It’s like, up to now, the melodic tenor and sonic grammar of Tswift’s album was lying about what it said. The sound isn’t true. There is a kind of disclosure and revelation and truth that is viscerally carried in the sonic environment of the album, and it took the heartbroken musical genius of Ryan Adams to unveil this–to point out the cognitive (and pre-cognitive!) dissonance at work in Taylor Swift’s original.  Adams’ cover tells the truth about the music, and thus tells the truth about a sad, broken world by redeploying Swift’s lyrical honesty in a sonic environment that fits.

(Jeremy Begbie could explain this much better than I ever could, but I can’t imagine convincing him to listen to either version of 1989!)

What does this have to do with worship?  We live, you might say, in a major chord culture.  We live in a society that wants even its heartbreaking lyrics delivered in pop medleys that keep us upbeat, tunes we can dance to. We live for the “hook,” that turn that makes it all OK, that lets us shake it off and distract ourselves to death.  And this cultural penchant for a certain sonic grammar seeps into the church and the church’s worship, so that we want songs and hymns and spiritual songs that do the same.  But as a result we often create a (pre)cognitive dissonance between the Bible’s honesty, carried in our hymns and psalms, and our pop retunings.  Or we embed them in a sonic liturgical environment that endeavors to be, above all, “upbeat” and positive–a weekly pick-up encouraging you to just “shake it off.”

But then a Ryan Adams comes along and takes you back to lament, and reminds you of all the minor chord moments of the biblical narrative, and invites you into a sonic environment that actually tells the truth about the broken world you live in, and that your neighbors live in, and that refugees from Syria live in.  Worship should be a proclamation that tells the truth, not just lyrically, but sonically.  And that means music that resonates with broken hearts.  Even though the Gospel exhorts us to “lift up our hearts,” sometimes that only happens because God in Christ comes down to meet us in our brokenheartedness.  That will sometimes happen in song.

“Do not be intimidated by the torrent of impiety”

In the early reconnaissance stages of a new book on St. Augustine, I’ve been reading his Expositions of the Psalms and came across this striking passage, given the time in which we find ourselves.  In some ways, it reminded me of my Cardus colleague Ray Pennings’ recent op-ed in the National Post.

Augustine, preaching on (Vulgate) Psalm 57:8 (“They will be scorned like water that flows away”):

You should not be intimidated by rivers that are reputed to be powerful torrents, my brothers and sisters. They are full of winter rain, but don’t worry; after a short time their force abates. The water rushes down and roars for a while, but it will soon subside; it cannot continue its spate for long. There have been plenty of heresies that have died away.  They flowed between their bands as long as any force remained in them; but then the water level dropped, the river-beds dried, and their memory scarcely survives today. People do not recall they they ever existed.  They will be scorned like water that runs away.  But the same is true of the whole world. It does on in its noisy course for a while and tries to drag along anyone it can catch. All the unbelievers, all the proud folk, crash against the rocks of their pride with a din like that of water rushing toward a confluence, but they must not frighten you. They are only swollen winter rivers that cannot flow all the year round; they will inevitably dwindle toward their proper place, which means the end of them. 

Yet the Lord himself drank from this torrent of the world. Here it was that he suffered, from this same torrent he drank, but he drank by the wayside, as he passed it, for he did not stand in the way of sinners.  What does scripture say of him? He will drink from the torrent beside the way, and therefore he will raise his head (Ps. 109 [110]:7).  This means: because he died, he was glorified; because he suffered, he rose again. Had he been unwilling to drink from the torrent on the way, he would not have died; if he had not died, he would not have risen from the aded, and would not have been glorified. But in fact he will drink from the torrent beside the way, and therefore he will raise his head.  Our Head is raised up already; let his members follow him.

~Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, 57.16